Tan and Brown, White and Black: Changing a Main Character’s Race

I’ve dedicated every spare second I have this week to working on my sci-fi novel, Mark of the Pterren.

I’ve done another intense round of editing to the first 300 pages — and I can’t count the number of times I’ve edited those pages, but each time I do, I’m closer to the point of never having to edit them again — which means I’ve had moments this week when I realize, “Wow! These sentences suck so much less!” and that makes me happy.

So I felt productive, even though all I really wanted to do was read the third Outlander book, Voyager. I took my copy of Voyager to the hot springs in Pagosa last weekend, rested the book on a rock, and turned pages with my lips and chin (because my hands had to stay underwater, else turn to ice) — and of course people wanted to talk to me, and some succeeded, but God help me all I wanted to do was just read that book.

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FYI: The place where I put my book was just to the left of the woman’s arm in this picture —

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When I arrived home Sunday night, I told myself I had to return to my own work. I couldn’t keep reading Outlander books like a maniac.

So I threw myself back into Mark of the Pterren.

I recently had an epiphany concerning race in my fiction, which I blogged about in the post Why Football Matters, and on Monday this week, I kept examining race in my latest novel, and asking the universe, basically, to let me see my characters in new ways. To let them transform.

You might think this is something easy and simple to do — but it is NOT.

There is something very humbling and frightening about doing this. It’s an intensely unpleasant experience. The end result is powerful, and I cherish the process when it’s finished, but the process itself is like having my mind ripped open, and then sewn back together. Granted, the product I’m left with is something stronger and better than what I had to begin with. But still. There is the ripping and sewing part that comes first. Unpleasant enough that I cried, and felt a bit sick with myself, and my body shuddered, and I didn’t like it at all.

Because here is the thing about characters — at least, fictional characters as I know them: they show up in my head, the same way babies show up in a woman’s uterus — stamped with their own DNA. So when I ask the universe to transform my characters, something else is going to show up, with a new set of DNA, and I have no control over that. You would think I do, since I’m the author and we have this idea authors “invent characters” — but honestly, I think fiction writers are receiving devices. (Well, I can’t speak for all writers here, but I think a lot of writers might agree with me.)

Perhaps, sometime far in the future, scientists will have an understanding of energy that includes a theory of where thinking comes from that is like our current understanding of how light moves, as a wave/particle mash-up of energy matter traveling through space —

But. Until that day comes. Let me just say: thinking happens. We can choose what we focus on, but the thoughts arrive on their own. Like how our bodies know to breathe on their own, and our hearts know to beat on their own, and the bazillion other things that have to happen every millisecond to keep us alive. Our brains are like that, to the zillionth power, and we live in a big soup of energy around us that affects what we think every day, because the signals we’re sent, and the signals we learn to pay attention to, change all the time.

Or so I believe. I’ve heard authors at conferences say the concept of ideas “floating around us” is totally ludicrous and that there is no way any writer just “gets things handed to them” for a story — but this is actually what most writing feels like to me. I wear writer-antenna, tune in, and type what I find. When I’m editing at my best, I still do this — tune in, and type what I find.

I would like to claim “I made this” when I look at my stories — but it really feels more like they just arrive. My characters show up, and they dictate the plot, and the more I learn about those characters, the more the plot can change during editing.

Now that I sound thoroughly froo-froo and Out There and new-agey loopy, I’d like to say, when I asked the universe to transform my characters this week, I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t know if a main character would change, or a secondary character — I just asked for change — and I ended up with a Japanese boy instead of a Spaniard.

That sounds so simple and straightforward, right? As if changing a character’s appearance was as easy as snapping my fingers. *Poof!* Done! Easy!

It. Is. NOT.

That main character lived in my head as a Spaniard for a long time. I started writing about him in 2009, and he existed in my imagination for years before then, so he’s had a decently long life in his original body.

He looked kind of like this —

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I’d grown very used to him looking like this.

Then the universe skinned him, reset his bone structure, altered his features, gave him new genes, and handed him back to me, transformed. I can remember him as a Spaniard, like remembering a loved one who has died. But now he looks Japanese. There is no Japan in this story, because the pterren have wiped out human nations, but the various races of humans survive in the pterren.

Which was fine. Figuring out new racial terms for this story wasn’t difficult. Time-consuming, but straightforward and simple.

Rebirthing a main character — not easy.

Now he looks like this —

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Or here’s an image in color, for a better comparison —

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This morning, I came across an opinion article in The Washington Post — “In the land of make-believe, racial diversity is a fantasy,” by Amina Luqman, published on October 30, 2014.

The author is a black mother whose black son hesitated to dress up as Harry Potter for Halloween, which he thought would be wrong, after admitting to his mother, “But I’m not tan. I’m brown.”

As Ms. Luqman explains, “Tan and brown are terms for white and black that my son picked up at his progressive school; they’re seen as less political and more precise, and I guess they take some of the sting off. But the words don’t change the long-standing reality: In the United States, children’s fantasies are still largely imagined in white.”

Here’s a Harry Potter movie picture I copied off the internet, which helpfully illustrates that Harry Potter is, for the most part, white-people land:

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Sure, there are a few “people of color” in the Harry Potter books and movies — but by and large, we’re dealing with Caucasians in this story. The main characters, the professors at Hogwarts, the bad guys — we’re in white-people land.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE Harry Potter — (like, oh my God, LOVE Harry Potter) — my life would be so much LESS if J.K. Rowling hadn’t written those seven books — and I’m not criticizing the race of her characters. Not at all.

But the truth remains, when most people envision superheroes, super stars, leading men of Hollywood, leading women of Hollywood, celebrities, and famous people in general, including cartoon characters — we are picturing white people.

India has a huge film industry, as does Japan, as does Nigeria — as well as many other countries trying to give their populations TV shows, movies, and advertisements a larger majority of their citizens can relate to, identify with, and enjoy as entertainment.

But the question of diversity in American pop culture comes up a lot. Which is fair, since America is “a melting pot” of immigrants and Native Americans, and the United States is due to become majority-non-white during this century.

So back to Ms. Luqman and her opinion piece for The Washington Post, writing about the dilemma her son faced in dressing up as a white fantasy character for Halloween.

“As a black parent, it saddens me that my son is faced with these tired racial confines. I also worry about his willingness to so readily accept the injustice of white cultural privilege. As an adult, I know things can be different. I know that somewhere there’s another adult sitting in a boardroom right now, deciding that the next big fantasy heroes — the next “Frozen” sisters — will be white, as if it’s some set rule of the universe.”

There’s a wee bit of a problem with what Ms. Luqman is saying, though I do empathize with her, and I definitely want my own stories to have more diversity in them — especially diversity in the main characters.

However.

This is easier said than done.

Now, I’m not saying that some art isn’t derivative, or that there aren’t people who “write to formula” and “rip off other stories” and “turn out crap” to “make a buck.”

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But I’m not that kind of artist. I don’t set out to “copy plotlines” or “make money on trends” or “put white people in stories so they’ll make money.” I can’t even fathom trying to write books that way. My art is channeled, picked up on my antenna — and, guess what? I fail, too. My characters often arrive as white people, and I’ve lived almost all my life around white people, and I am, myself, a white person, and when I tune in to the energy around me, it’s not hard to see the correlation between what I am and what comes through my antenna, is it?

That’s a subconscious effect of racism — of identifying with my own race as well as the dominant culture portrayed in the American media/entertainment complex — and I fall victim to it as much as the next person.

Changing the race of a character means asking for something else to come through my antenna — like moving a satellite dish to face a different direction — and I’m still not in charge of what finds its way to me. Creativity is not a widget. I could slap a new coat of paint on a widget, and not think anything of it.

Fiction characters do not operate the same way.

Fiction characters are pieces of soul in the universe, and they can be as loved and cherished by readers as “real” living creatures because characters have a life on the page, which means a life in the mind, which means they are very much real, because thoughts are very much real. As real as beating hearts and the air in our lungs. The life of the mind is as solid, and ephemeral, as that.

So here is what I would like to say to Ms. Luqman. And anyone else who wants to point fingers at “the money-making machine” known as Hollywood and pop culture.

A lot of these big movies began as novels and comic books. Novels and comic books come from authors and artists. Authors and artists are making art through conscious and subconcious choices, but I would say mostly subconscious, and mostly outside their control.

Harry Potter became a movie because people bought and read those books by the millions. What people devour in literature often becomes what people want to pay money to see on the big screen.

As to the white characters in Harry Potter — J.K. Rowling wrote what came to her on her antenna, and what came to her were mostly white people.

Many authors and comic book artists are white. Their antenna are as attuned to seeing white characters in their work as audience members are used to seeing white people on TV.

I changed a main character this week — and it was scary and humbling, and it made me cry, and it was extremely difficult — and I dread going through that process again, but I know I probably will, because I want more diversity in my art.

But this process is not something I take lightly, and it is certainly not easy. For future projects, I feel more assured about diversity in my main characters. For instance, in my next two novels after Mark of the Pterren, I have a black main character in my YA novel, and a Middle Eastern Muslim main character in my vampire novel — because those characters came to me that way, and I didn’t have to face the question of altering what the universe had already given me.

Mark of the Pterren was different. I had two Hispanic main characters, and a bunch of white people, basically, with a few black characters mixed in. A racial makeup similar to the books I’ve already written.

I wanted Mark of the Pterren to be more diverse, and I’ve taken steps to make it that way — but even then, what came to me was outside my control, a function of the creative process, not conscious thought.

Though I was really relieved, when this process was over, and I told my stepdaughter Rachel that I now have a Japanese main character in my current work in progress, and she was like, “Japanese guys are so hot.” Because yeah, they totally are. Bye, pretty Spaniard boy. Hello, hot Japanese boy. Welcome to this story you’re starring in — you are a pterren with silver wings, and the future world you’re living in kind of sucks, so good luck being a badass warrior boy, I’m rooting for you.

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